In April 2003, the Defense Department approved interrogation techniques for use at the Guantanamo Bay prison that permit making detainees disrobe entirely for questioning, reversing normal sleep patterns and exposing prisoners to heat, cold and "sensory assault," including loud music and bright lights, according to defense officials.
The classified list of about 20 techniques was approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the Justice Department and represents the first publicly known documentation of an official policy permitting interrogators to use physically and psychologically stressful methods during questioning.
The use of any of these techniques requires the approval of senior Pentagon officials — and in some cases, of the defense secretary. Interrogators must justify that the harshest treatment is "militarily necessary," according to the document, as cited by one official. Once approved, the harsher treatment must be accompanied by "appropriate medical monitoring."
"We wanted to find a legal way to jack up the pressure," said one lawyer who helped write the guidelines. "We wanted a little more freedom than in a U.S. prison, but not torture."
Defense and intelligence officials said similar guidelines have been approved for use on "high-value detainees" in Iraq — those suspected of terrorism or of having knowledge of insurgency operations. Separate CIA guidelines exist for agency-run detention centers.
It could not be learned whether similar guidelines were in effect at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, which has been the focus of controversy in recent days. But lawmakers have said they want to know whether the misconduct reported at Abu Ghraib — which included sexual humiliation — was an aberration or whether it reflected an aggressive policy taken to inhumane extremes.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment for the record. Several officials interviewed for this article, including two lawyers who helped formulate the guidelines, declined to be identified because the subject matter is so sensitive.
'If it's illegal here...it's illegal abroad'
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. military and the CIA have detained thousands of foreign nationals at the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as well as at facilities in Iraq and elsewhere, as part of an effort to crack down on suspected terrorists and to quell the insurgency in Iraq. The Pentagon guidelines for Guantanamo were designed to give interrogators the authority to prompt uncooperative detainees to provide information, though experts on interrogation say information submitted under such conditions is often unreliable.
The United States has stated publicly that it does not engage in torture or cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Defense officials said yesterday that the techniques on the list are consistent with international law and contain appropriate safeguards such as legal and medical monitoring. "The high-level approval is done with forethought by people in responsibility, and layers removed from the people actually doing these things, so you can have an objective approach," said one senior defense official familiar with the guidelines.
But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the tactics outlined in the U.S. document amount to cruel and inhumane treatment. "The courts have ruled most of these techniques illegal," he said. "If it's illegal here under the U.S. Constitution, it's illegal abroad. . . This isn't even close."
With the proper permission, the guidelines allow detainees to be subjected to psychological techniques meant to open them up, disorient or put them under stress. These include "invoking feelings of futility" and using female interrogators to question male detainees.
Some prisoners could be made to stand for four hours at a time. Questioning a prisoner without clothes was permitted if he is alone in his cell. Ruled out were techniques such as physical contact — even poking a finger in the chest — and the "washboard technique" of smothering a detainee with towels to threaten suffocation. Placing electrodes on detainees' bodies "wasn't even evaluated — it was such a no-go," said one of the officials involved in drawing up the list.
During the Pentagon debates, one participant drew on his memory of a scene from the movie, "The Untouchables," in which a police officer played by actor Sean Connery bent the rules to persuade mobsters that they should provide evidence against Mafia kingpin Al Capone. Much like the officer, the participant suggested, interrogators could shoot a dead body in front of a detainee, then suggest to him that is what they did to people who refused to talk.
Pentagon lawyers declared the technique out of bounds, and it was discarded.
More explicit rules
The guidelines were the product of three months of discussion between military lawyers, medical personnel and psychologists, and followed several incidents of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo.
In late 2002, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, until recently commander of the detention operation at Guantanamo Bay, asked the Pentagon for more explicit rules for interrogation, four people involved in the process said.
"They don't want to be in the situation where we are making things up as we go along," said one lawyer involved in the sessions.
"We wanted to outline under what circumstances we could make them feel uncomfortable, a little distressed," another lawyer involved said. During the discussions, "the political people [at the Pentagon] were inclined toward aggressive techniques," the official said. Military lawyers, in contrast, were more conservative in their approach, mindful of how they would want U.S. military personnel held as prisoners to be treated by foreign powers, the official said.
Mark Jacobson, a former Defense Department official who worked on detainee issues while at the Pentagon, said that at Guantanamo and the Bagram facility in Afghanistan, military interrogators have never used torture or extreme stress techniques. "It's the fear of being tortured that might get someone to talk, not the torture," Jacobson said. "We were so strict."
Interrogation teams routinely draw up detailed plans, which list all techniques they hope to use. These plans are passed to superior officers for discussion and pre-approval, Jacobson said.
"I actually think we are not aggressive enough [at times in interrogation techniques]," he said. "I think we are too timid."
In a March 11 interview at his office at the Guantanamo Navy base — one of his last interviews before leaving to take over detention facilities in Iraq — Miller said that his interrogators treated prisoners humanely and that the operation had yielded important intelligence.
On Thursday, the U.S. military acknowledged that two Guantanamo Bay guards had been disciplined in cases involving the use of excessive force against detainees. Detainees released from the facility have given disparate accounts of their stay there, some praising the food and free schooling, others claiming that guards roughed them up.
Two Afghans died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan in December 2002. Both deaths were classified as homicides by the U.S. military. Another Afghan died in June 2003, at a detention site near Asadabad, in Kunar province.